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One Year Later
Monday: Who, What, When, Where, Why -- WNIJ's reporter roundtable talks about why we are doing the series and our approach.Tuesday: Remembering what the protests looked and sounded like -- Susan Stephens interviews a photographer who captured images of local protests.Wednesday: How did the protests change education -- Peter Medlin covers schools' approach to cultural responsive teaching legislation after the protests.Thursday: How did the protests change daily life -- Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco follows-up on those arrested in Rockford one year ago.Friday: How did artists process the protests? -- Yvonne Boose curates a conversation and readings from poets on reflections of the past year.

Sustained Protests Continue In Rockford One Year Later

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
Protest held in Rockford in 2020

It’s been a year since protests for police accountability became a typical sight in Rockford.

A couple months back, protesters began pasting pictures of individuals who were, in some cases shot, killed or injured by Rockford police officers. They are placed on the various light poles outside of city hall. Protesters called the display of pictures ‘Say Their Name Square.’ And city administrators have it taken down regularly. What comes next are heated confrontations that are typically broadcast over Facebook Live.  

And it’s not just the pictures that the city is taking down. Protesters also write messages in chalk on the sidewalk that wraps around the government building. The city will very quickly respond by sending power washers. These acts of protest aren’t free for taxpayers. According to a Freedom of Information Act request,  the city has spent at least $2,500 just on washing away chalk.

Leslie Rolfe is a known presence at city hall. He’s with the May 30th Alliance, an organization that formed after the initial protests in Rockford following the death of George Floyd. Rolfe has been living and sleeping outside of the building since last October.

Credit Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco

“24/7, we've always had some representative of the May 30th Alliance out here--day, night, winter, spring, fall, snow, hail, rain, sleet-- we're there,” Rolfe said during a recent interview.

The sustained occupation began after the shooting of Tyris Jones, an unarmed Black man who was fleeing a traffic stop after being pulled over by Rockford Police officer Dominik McNiece. Rolfe says that initially, the goal was to make sure city officials investigating the incident knew there were interested parties awaiting the verdict.

McNiece was found justified in the shooting and cleared of wrongdoing.

McNiece returned to work at the beginning of December. About a month later he was involved in another incident in which officers chased down Denzel Dunivant and apprehended him after a brief struggle. According to report indicated McNiece was not directly involved in the altercation. Still, a photo of Dunivant following his arrest has been used by protestors as an example of the excessive force applied by local law enforcement. In the photo, Dunivant’s face is scraped and bloody and one of his eyes is bruised shut. Rolfe says that making sure the public sees Dunivant’s battered face really matters. 

“Going to the prettier sides of Rockford with the uglier issues of Rockford became a very important and very symbolic thing,” Rolfe said.

That has included city hall and the Rockford City Market.

Before the occupation at city hall and before the death of George Floyd last year, Rolfe says he had never participated in a protest. He was just another guy in Rockford working in retail to get by.

The first protest in Rockford after the death of George Floyd led to an internal investigation by RPD into the use of force utilized to disperse the crowds. The investigation later determined that the amount of force used was “reasonable.” But not Rolfe. He remembers the events of that day as a kind of call to action.

Aija Penix, another Rockford activist, says that seeing footage of the clashes between police and protestors on May 30th last year shocked her. But for Penix, the moment when she felt called to participate came after a phone call from a close friend.

“My godson was on Tik Tok and accidentally saw the death of George Floyd. And he was terrified and told his mom that he didn't want to leave the house because he was afraid. He wanted to be with her at all times, because he was afraid that something like that could happen to him,” Penix recalled in a recent interview.

Penix was arrested twice since the protests started last year, but her legal battle is over now. After months, and numerous court dates, all the charges against her were dropped. For Rolfe, who has been arrested multiple times over the past year, the legal process continues. They both say that no part of their lives has gotten easier from advocating for progress in Rockford. They also worry about the next generation of protesters.

“You're not going to see the same faces in the crowd. You'll see some of them, but many of them you won't. Because there are people whose lives have been ravaged and uprooted.”

Meanwhile, leaders with the city of Rockford have been meeting with a host of local organizations and community members to develop a Citizen’s Review Board. The purpose of the board would be to provide an independent investigation into incidents of police misconduct. Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara says that things are looking good.

“We're getting to the stage where I think it starts to get exciting,” McNamara said in a recent interview with WNIJ. “At first we were really talking about really kind of broad concepts of what we want to see in [the board.]” 

Local NAACP chapter President Rhonda Greer Robinson says one thing is crucial. She says the board must have the authority to issue subpoenas.

“We want evidence that we can stand by,” Greer Robinson said. “And say, ‘Okay, we have questioned the officer we have looked at the film, we have got A and B and C to see exactly what happened.’ I really want subpoena powers.”

Subpoena power would mean that the Citizens Review Board would be able to launch its own investigations and provide deeper insight into allegations of police misconduct. McNamara did not specify if any proposed review board would include subpoena power. But Rolfe says that if the board starts out toothless, that's OK -- it just means you have to give it teeth.

Credit Spencer Tritt

“The Citizens Review Board can't have subpoena power if you don't have a Citizens Review Board,” Rolfe said. “So now that the review board is being put in place, what do you have to do to get power built into it.”

The number of protestors in front of city hall or at any recent rally is a fraction of the crowds in Rockford last summer. But for Rolfe, that’s not important. The objective is to keep pushing the city to make changes. So, he says, the occupation in front of city hall isn’t ending anytime soon.

  • Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project which is a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms.
Juanpablo covers environmental, substandard housing and police-community relations. He’s been a bilingual facilitator at the StoryCorps office in Chicago. As a civic reporting fellow at City Bureau, a non-profit news organization that focuses on Chicago’s South Side, Ramirez-Franco produced print and audio stories about the Pilsen neighborhood. Before that, he was a production intern at the Third Coast International Audio Festival and the rural America editorial intern at In These Times magazine. Ramirez-Franco grew up in northern Illinois. He is a graduate of Knox College.
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